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Trump Greenlights Sanctions Against International Criminal Court Investigators

A trio of judges oversees a trial in 2017 at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.
Evert Elzinga
AFP via Getty Images
A trio of judges oversees a trial in 2017 at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

Updated at 7:15 p.m. ET

Two months after the International Criminal Court greenlighted an investigation into potential war crimes by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Trump administration is pushing back.

President Trump has imposed economic sanctions against court officials "directly engaged with any effort to investigate or prosecute United States personnel without the consent of the United States."

The executive order released Thursday also expands visa restrictions against court officials and their families.

Trump said the ICC investigation threatens to subvert U.S. sovereignty and subject U.S. officials and their allies "to harassment, abuse, and possible arrest" — and "thereby threaten the national security and foreign policy of the United States."

In response to the sanctions order, the ICC said it "stands firmly by its staff and officials."

"The International Criminal Court ... expresses profound regret at the announcement of further threats and coercive actions, including financial measures, against the Court and its officials, made earlier today by the Government of the United States," the court said in a statement.

Washington has long been at loggerheads with the ICC, which was established in 2002 without the membership of the U.S. The George W. Bush administration withdrew from the treaty that established the court just weeks before it took effect, explaining the decision in similar terms to those used in Trump's order Thursday: U.S. officials were concerned at the prospect of a body outside the country's borders having any form of jurisdiction over its citizens.

The court boasts the membership of 123 countries, including staunch U.S. allies the United Kingdom, France and Canada.

Yet even for this fractious relationship, an ICC decision earlier this year represented "a kind of crossing of the Rubicon," Indiana University associate professor David Bosco told NPR at the time.

That's because the investigation authorized by the ICC, the world's only standing war crimes tribunal, may result in indictments against U.S. troops.

ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who pushed for the probe, has said the investigation will focus on alleged crimes by not only the Taliban and other armed groups, but also Afghan forces, U.S. forces and the CIA.

At a joint news conference Thursday with several senior Cabinet officials, including Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the court is "ineffective, unaccountable and is a politically motivated bureaucracy."

Speaking about the Afghanistan probe, he said, "To make matters worse ... we have every reason to believe our adversaries are manipulating the ICC by encouraging these allegations. These tactics represent a blatant attempt to subvert justice and the mission of the ICC."

Barr, without presenting evidence, also accused Russia and other unnamed foreign powers of "manipulating the ICC in pursuit of their own agenda."

The move Thursday is consistent with an administration that has repeatedly opposed U.S. participation in a number of international pacts and organizations. Administration officials have withdrawn from the United Nations' Human Rights Council and the Paris climate accord, and more recently they announced intentions of "terminating" their relationship with the World Health Organization.

Human rights groups have decried the decision.

"The US assault on the ICC is an effort to block victims whether in Afghanistan, Israel or Palestine from seeing justice," said Andrea Prasow, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "Countries that support international justice should oppose this attempt at obstruction."

NPR's Michele Kelemen contributed to this report.

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.